Aspen’s Nicky Ufkes: Small frame, superior talent
August 27, 2010
ASPEN – Nicky Ufkes is uncomfortable.
The Aspen High football field and surrounding bleachers are vacant. Players and coaches have long since shuffled off to the locker room after a recent early-morning practice. The senior running back’s shoulder pads rest on a nearby patch of concrete.
The sun is beating down.
The questions keep coming.
Line him up in the backfield on brisk Friday nights – amid the glare of the lights, the bellowing fans and facing 11 eager defenders tracking his every move – and Ufkes is in his element. But ask him about his breakthrough 2009 season, about being stopped in town by unknown well-wishers, and the recent cover shoot for Colorado Football Magazine, and he is uneasy.
His answers are intelligent, thoughtful and brief. At first glance, he appears fidgety. The look in his eyes suggests that talking about himself is as appealing as being planted on the turf by a group of 300-pound defensive linemen.
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“I’m definitely a little out of my comfort zone,” he admits. “I really don’t look at this so much as me getting attention. It’s the whole program getting attention.”
Spend mere minutes with Ufkes, and one thing becomes abundantly clear: He is as modest off the field as he is explosive on it.
This is no charade. He refers to his 2,506 yards gained on the ground last fall as the offense’s yards, and celebrates each touchdown in the arms of his offensive linemen – “They do all the work. I just carry the ball,” he opines.
He recently asked Skiers head coach Mike Sirko if he could turn down an interview request from The Denver Post. He insisted that a list of his lifting records be removed from a wall in the school’s weight room.
“He knows this is the ultimate team sport,” says father Curt Ufkes, who has coached his son since third grade. “He’s got his head in the right place. … He doesn’t want things to be all about him.”
• • • •
The Skiers face a third-and-14 near midfield during the opening half of last October’s home game against Coal Ridge. The Titans defense – and everyone in the stands – likely are expecting quarterback Anderson Cole to drop back and pass.
Sirko calls a halfback counter.
Ufkes takes the hand-off, bursts through a gaping hole in the line and rumbles 53 yards for the touchdown – one of his four in the opening half.
“It’s all about winning football games,” Sirko says. “When we get in a groove and know we can move the ball and we know they can’t stop the play, we’ll run it as much as we need to.
“When we get in trouble, we’re going to pound the rock. … We’re very fortunate to have found a kid who has grit and can do that for us.”
Regardless of the situation, handing off to No. 26 proved to be the best option in the playbook in 2009. It helped propel the Skiers to a 9-3 record and a berth in the 2A state quarterfinals.
It helped Ufkes distinguish himself as one of the best tailbacks – and best players – in the state, regardless of classification.
By any measure, Ufkes’ 2009 campaign was historic. After waiting his turn behind accomplished backs Tucker Eason and Beau Seguin during his freshman and sophomore years, Ufkes finally got his chance to shine last fall.
He seized the opportunity, setting a school rushing record and scoring 31 touchdowns – numbers made even more staggering by the fact that he was often watching from the sidelines during the second halves of blowouts. (In two games, he rushed for fewer than 70 yards.)
Ufkes rushed for more than 300 yards three times, including a school-record 329-yard performance in a dramatic 46-41, playoff-opening victory over Pagosa Springs.
He scored a rushing touchdown in all but two games – and a season-high six in three quarters against Grand Valley – and rushed for 226 or more yards in seven straight games from Oct. 2 through Nov. 14.
“The guy’s got great speed, great field vision and not only that but he gives ground when you try to tackle him,” says Roaring Fork coach Greg Holley, who watched Ufkes pile up 314 yards on his defense. “We told the guys that what we were going to have to do was run through the man. We told them several times. … He is so good at maintaining his feet and body balance and bouncing out of tackles.”
“He’s very elusive. If you watch him, it’s like tacklers just slip off him,” adds Curt Ufkes, a former tailback and kick returner at the University of Northern Colorado who serves as the Skiers’ running backs and linebackers coach. “That’s because he’s always kind of on edge … getting sideways and getting skinny through the line. That’s not something you can teach. That’s something he innately has.”
Something few teams could contain. Not even eventual state champion Faith Christian, who twice watched Nicky Ufkes break free for runs of 40 or more yards. He rushed for 153 in Aspen’s 26-20, season-ending loss.
“I have a lot of respect for those guys. A lot of them came up after the game and wished me good luck,” Ufkes remembers. “A couple of them who didn’t know I was a junior asked me if I had signed anywhere.”
• • • •
Ufkes produced numbers last season that any high school tailback would envy. He turned heads from the Western Slope to the Front Range.
One would think it would be hard for college programs to overlook such achievements. They mostly have.
Why? Ufkes stacks up on paper, but not in stature (coaches affectionately refer to him and other similarly pint-sized players as Oompa-Loompas). He is 5-foot-6 and 175 pounds.
Both numbers seem a little generous.
“We blame his mother for that. She’s 5-foot-2″,” Curt Ufkes jokes.
“I’ll be up late at night and will have my dad pull my arms and my mom pull my legs and see if I can get a couple more inches,” Nicky Ufkes adds.
“If I was 6-foot-2 and put up these types of numbers, I know things would be different. There’s really nothing I can do.”
Ufkes spent the bulk of last season jockeying with Kent Denver’s Tyler Jackson for the state rushing lead. Jackson, who is 6 feet tall and 195 pounds, compiled 2,771 yards in 14 games in one of 2A’s toughest conferences. He was held to 88 yards, however, in the state championship game loss to Faith Christian – the only common opponent he and Ufkes shared.
The Sun Devils standout went on to win 2A player of the year honors and is now on the roster at Atlantic Coast Conference school Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
Ufkes’ future in football is uncertain.
“He’s realistic. He knows he’s not going to play in the [NFL]. He’s focusing on pre-med … but he doesn’t want to hang up his cleats after high school. He’d like to be given the chance to play at the highest level he can possibly play at,” Curt Ufkes says. “Not many coaches want to take a chance on someone smaller who doesn’t fit the mold. Their reputations are based on who they recruit.”
Nicky Ufkes and his father spent the bulk of Ex Ed week in April visiting colleges on the East Coast. They toured Dartmouth (N.H.), as well as Div. III Williams (Mass.) and Bowdoin (Me.) colleges.
They also made a stop at Northwestern in Evanston, Ill.; one of the school’s donors, who owns a house in Aspen, suggested the Wildcats take a look at Ufkes.
The visit still stings to this day.
“You know, I’m optimistic but also realistic. I know going to play there would be a huge reach,” Ufkes says of suiting up for the Wildcats, who compete in the Big Ten. “We sat down with one of the [assistant] coaches, and it was brief. He said, ‘We are looking for kids that are bigger than you, faster than you and stronger than you.’
“My height always seems to be the elephant in the room. You could almost see it in his face, when he literally looked down at me then turned off some switch. … There have always been non-believers, but to have that happen face to face was tough.”
Adds Curt Ufkes: “That’s a dog-eat-dog world up there. … We got to tour the facility and talk with an academic counselor. I think that’s when his size came into the equation again.
“We know he’s a great athlete. He’s what we call an undersized overachiever. … It’s all in your heart and in your mind. You can do whatever you want if you believe.”
Nicky Ufkes has always embraced that role. Back in third grade, he jokes that he was a 48-pound running back who quickly learned that, to succeed in the sport against players two and three times his size, he would have to use his speed to his advantage.
“We would always run the sweep. I would head directly to the sideline, then go straight up the field,” Ufkes recalls. “It was almost like playing cops and robbers. … I had a knack for it right away. I fell in love.”
He showed up to his first high school practice standing about 5-foot-3 and weighing 115 pounds. He says he had to fabricate a pair of shoulder pads to fit his fence-post thin frame.
Somehow, Ufkes still found a way to stand out.
“The first time we did the Oklahoma [1-on-1] drill, he stepped in as a defensive lineman, came across the line, jacked up the tight end and tackled the running back,” says Sirko, who was then in his first year in Aspen. “I knew we had a special kid there. I knew with his passion for the game and his work ethic he would continue to get better.”
“He’s always been a little pistol,” Curt Ufkes adds. “He’s competitive in everything he does. If you play checkers with him, he’ll be very competitive.”
Ufkes’ determination earned him a starting spot at cornerback during his freshman year. He was a first-team All-Conference selection a season later, when he finished second on the team in both rushing and receiving and picked off four passes.
Ufkes has flourished in Sirko’s system, both on and off the field. He was and continues to be a constant in the weight room, where he has worked to add some 60 pounds to his frame in about three years.
He and his teammates spent about four days a week in the weight room during the last few offseasons. Ufkes rarely missed a session, coaches say. (He did spend some time last summer in Uganda with the school group “Africa in Action” helping build a library.)
He’s now squatting 415 pounds, benching 270 and cleaning about 240, Curt Ufkes says. The back’s legs and shoulders appear as sturdy as rebar.
He’s even expected to play linebacker this fall.
“What he’s received, as far as the attention and stuff, he has deserved,” Sirko says.
• • • •
The day after returning from Illinois, Nicky Ufkes was in the weight room at 6:20 a.m.
“We usually start at 7, but I was a little early,” he says. “That [experience] definitely acts as motivation. I love to prove people wrong. … But at the same time, I don’t want to let anybody down.
“At the end of the day, I ask myself if I’ve worked as hard as I can, if I gave everything I had. That’s a tough question to say yes to. This year I’ve said yes more than any other year.”
The doubters are quiet these days. And Ufkes is in elite company. He is one of 11 prep players featured on the cover of the latest edition of Colorado Football Magazine, joining the likes of Stanford recruit Brendon Austin, an offensive lineman at 5A Chaparral, and 215-pound Mullen running back Adonis Ameen-Moore, who is being courted by CU, Colorado State, Kansas State – even Northwestern.
It’s clear Ufkes made quite an impression in his first full season in the Skiers backfield. What can one realistically expect for an encore?
“We know he’ll do great things, and we’re going to do our best to help him achieve that,” lineman Dane Christensen said. “Nicky’s an outstanding back. He can do just about everything. Seeing him bolting down the sidelines is a great feeling.”
“I don’t think a lot of us [in the Western Slope] have the talent [to stop him],” adds Roaring Fork’s Holley. “I’ve been coaching as long as Mike, and a kid like that comes along three or four times in a 30-year cycle.”
Don’t expect Ufkes to make any bold predictions. Ask him about gunning for consecutive 2,500-yard seasons, and he’ll talk only about the number 14 – the amount of games Aspen must play if it is to reach the state title game.
Ask him about taking a run at 2A player of the year, and he’ll talk about Aspen’s “Brotherhood” – from the bevy of skill players, to quarterback Rex Christensen, bruising fullback Daniel Ryerson and a tight-knit group of linemen who have made great strides each year they have played for Sirko.
He says he is merely a piece of the puzzle. A substantial piece, considering that last season he accounted for 40 percent of Aspen’s scoring.
“If it was just me versus 11 guys, there’s no way I’d gain any yards,” he says. “There’s a target on my back, but that’s what you want. … If there’s one more defender focused on me, that’s one less focused on the wideouts or quarterback.
“Selfishly, I’d like to get the ball on every single play. … But really, I’ll do whatever it takes to get that ring on my finger and be holding that trophy at the end.”